Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Sebastian Vettel

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Sebastian Vettel

Team: Scuderia Ferrari
Car No.: 5
Races: 20
Wins: 5
Podiums (excluding wins): 8
Pole Positions: 4
Fastest Laps: 5
Points: 317
Laps Led: 286
Championship Position: 2nd

2017 was supposed to be the year Sebastian Vettel finally fulfilled his ambition of emulating Michael Schumacher by returning Ferrari to its championship-winning heyday.

Instead, it ended in disappointment and frustration – once again.

Ferrari arguably made a greater step across the change in technical regulations for 2017 than any other team, living up to its pre-season tag as favorite by winning the opening round in Australia in fashion.

Vettel and Ferrari led their respective championships following the Monaco Grand Prix as the German ended a 16-year win drought for the Prancing Horse in the principality, and even heading into the summer break, a shot at both championships was looking good.

However, cracks had started to appear. Vettel’s remarkable antics behind the safety car in Baku sparked controversy after driving into Hamilton, suggesting the tension of the title fight was beginning to take its toll on the German.

The final run of flyaways was where things really fell apart for Vettel, though. Singapore looked to be a slam-dunk win, only for a start-line crash also involving teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen to put 25 free points in Hamilton’s pocket.

Reliability woes then struck in Malaysia and Japan – two more races Vettel could realistically have won – to make it game over in the title race, with Hamilton wrapping things up in Mexico.

Vettel only finished the year 46 points back from Hamilton, proving the impact the three bad races in Asia had. Realistically, this was a title race that should have gone down to the wire in Abu Dhabi. Instead, Vettel remains a four-time champion, level with Hamilton, who had just one to his name back in 2013 when his rival secured his fourth.

Ferrari’s internal issues will come under the microscope over the off-season, and Vettel himself knows there is plenty to work on. Staying cool under pressure and not letting things boil over as in Baku is the most obvious area for improvement.

But there is reason for hope. If Ferrari can keep up with Mercedes and repeat its impressive step into 2017 through the upcoming off-season, we may well be treated to another Vettel/Hamilton scrap at the front of the field, perhaps settling once and for all who is the greatest driver of the post-Schumacher era.

Season High: A crucial win in Hungary despite battling with a broken steering column.

Season Low: Letting tensions flare in Baku and hitting Hamilton behind the safety car.